Bethel resident Marie Meyer has created her gardens without the use of chemicals.
Why Organic Gardening Can Yield Lush Results
By Valerie Foster/Photos by Daryl Beyers
Destruction and sadness greeted Marie Meyer when she visited post-World War II Germany in 1949. Until she saw her grandmother’s beautiful garden.
“She had saved seeds and bulbs all during the war,” she says. “I was 11, and I remember that in the midst of all this destruction there was such beauty in her garden. I vowed that if I ever lived someplace where there is dirt, I would plant a garden.”
That, however, was impossible to do when she arrived home, since she lived with her family in an apartment in the Bronx. But she could dream, something she did on her frequent visits to the New York Botanical Garden. Once married, she moved with her minister husband, Bill, to the South, and planted the first of many gardens. A few years later, when living in Patchogue, N.Y., they were lucky to have a lovely Greek neighbor who taught her all about gardening, but most importantly, how to garden without chemicals. “The Europeans tend to use natural fertilizers, organic gardening without calling it that,” she says.
In Patchogue, she grew vegetables and berries, the produce that fed her four children and foster son from Vietnam. “We thought it was important for our kids to learn that you can grow vegetables to eat as food,” Meyer says. “And when they wanted a snack, they could run out and grab a handful of berries.”
When her husband was transferred to Garden City, also on Long Island, she added flowers to her vegetable and berry gardens.
And now, with her husband retired, their three-quarters of an acre in Bethel is decorated with four main flower gardens, three auxiliary gardens and a raised bed for tomatoes and herbs. And although all gardens sport different looks, they all have something in common: They are all au naturel – lacking any chemical intervention.
It comes as no surprise to Bill Duesing that Meyer’s gardens are gorgeous. “The most beautiful parks in Connecticut are fertilized with nothing but leaves,” says Duesing, executive director of the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Adds Chris Hadin, the horticultural specialist at the Abilis greenhouse in Greenwich: “It’s also better for the environment, and in the long run, makes the land sustainable. Healthy organic soil does not get depleted.” Abilis provides people with developmental disabilities support and advocacy to build able lives. They work with Hadin in the greenhouse, growing organic micro-greens for two area restaurants, Rebeccas and Barcelona. “Above all, organic gardening is healthier for the individuals who are eating the product of that land,” Hadin says.
The Bethel garden of Marie Meyer is a perfect example of organic gardening.
But where to start? All experts agree — with the soil. Both Hadin and Duesing suggest you send a sample of your soil to the Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory at the University of Connecticut — soiltest.uconn.edu — which costs $8. (Many local garden centers also offer this service.) Duesing says to ask for organic recommendations if your soil needs nutrients.
Next, begin composting, a practice that Meyer has passed down to her children. “We all compost. We have containers under our sink. Some of my children have them on their counters. We don’t even think about composting. We just do it,” she says. Once the under-sink containers are filled, the material is transferred to a large container outside, which her husband stirs from time to time. Things to include in your bin:
• Tea bags and coffee grinds
• All vegetable peelings and trimmings from vegetables, including pepper tops, kale veins and carrot peels
• Trimmings and peelings from fruits, including apple cores, orange skins and banana peels
• Kitchen paper towels that have not been used for meat or any containing chemicals
• Newspaper strips
Never add foods that will attract vermin, such as cooked food, meat, poultry, fish and cheese.
For fertilizer, Meyer then mixes her compost with manure. She also uses Milorganite fertilizer, derived from heat-dried microbes that have digested the organic material in wastewater; it is manufactured by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. “It’s sludge, but it’s perfectly sanitary and very low in nitrogen, so it’s perfect,” Meyer adds.
They also chop up their fallen leaves in the fall and spread them throughout their gardens, a practice Duesing says everyone should follow. “Leaves are organic matter, a critical part of soil,” he says.
Organic gardening is the only way to go for Bethel resident Marie Meyer.
“Historically, for 8,000 years, every fall soil received an application of leaves. Starting in the ’50s and ’60s, homeowners began raking up those leaves and taking them away. Our soils have been deprived of those leaves for more than half a century. But this is the annual organic input all of our soil needs.”
He suggests using a mulching mower — today most mowers come with this function — and use that function throughout the leaf-falling season. “It’s the best thing you can do for your soil and your lawn,” he says. And leave the leaves that fall into your flower or ornamental shrub beds. Come spring, most of those leaves can be turned over, into the soil, providing a good base to start planting.
Want another reason not to rake? “Think about all the time you’ll save not bagging leaves, or the money not having someone cart your leaves away,” Duesing says.
Come spring, Hadin heads to the beach to collect seaweed to fertilize his soil. “This goes back to ancient times in Ireland,” he says. “These people had the worst possible land possible, but by layering seaweed in between sand they created very fertile land.” He uses ulva lactuca, aka sea lettuce, which he says is easily dried out in your backyard. Then you simply crumble it in your hands and spread it over your flowers and vegetable beds. When his daughter was a toddler, he enlisted her help gathering and scattering this natural fertilizer.
He also built her a green teepee using poles to make the teepee shape, held together with twine at the top. Pole beans and peas grew up the sides of the poles, and within a short time, she had a little clubhouse to sit in and call her own.
It’s this emotional connection with the soil that all our experts say is so important to pass on to future generations, making gardening so much more than a weekend hobby.
“Once, I had some compost in my hand and said to my son, ‘Look how beautiful this is,’” Meyer says. “He said to me, ‘Mom, I don’t know anyone else who gets as excited about dirt as you do.’
“Gardening is part of my emotional well-being,” she adds. “It’s just a part of me, ever since I saw what my grandmother was able to accomplish. It’s all about taking care of God’s earth and being healthy.”
Getting Started with Organic Gardening
The following eco-friendly checklist is from the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association. Its website, ctnofa.org, includes a wealth of information on organic gardening. This shortened checklist comes from the 54-page pdf, “Introduction to Organic Lawns and Yards,” on the website:
• Keep pesticides off your lawn and garden.
• Use non-synthetic fertilizers from natural sources.
• Reduce water use.
• Remove invasive plants.
• Garden with native plants.
• Grow food.
• Make and use compost.
• Test your soil.
• Increase biodiversity.
• Mow your lawn high, 3 to 4 inches, leaving grass clippings on the lawn.
Don’t Miss Our Free Gardening Seminar!
A lecture by Tovah Martin
1 p.m., Saturday, June 29
Nielson’s Florist & Garden Shop
1405 Post Road, Darien
Learn how to create containers filled with plants that make the leap from your patio or deck in the summer to your windowsill in autumn and winter.
* pre-register at healthylifect.com/seminar
Marie Meyer’s Bethel garden.